A few days ago, Washington Post writer Alyssa Rosenberg penned a well-deserved love letter to Letty Ortiz, the character that Michelle Rodriguez plays in the vastly expanding Fast and the Furious franchise. In her article, Rosenberg identifies that Letty is a character who is “often in danger… rarely in distress,” a nod to the way that Rodriguez has refused to let Letty be a victim or a subordinate character throughout the franchise’s history. Rodriguez imbues Letty with a sense of strength – of body, of gender, and of ethnicity – that makes her an easy character to like. And no matter how many times Rodriguez dies in a franchise, her collaborators keep finding reasons to bring her back.
Still, despite her power as an action star and her pioneering spirit in breaking down onscreen gender stereotypes, Michelle Rodriguez has been somewhat underappreciated in the current conversations regarding gender and the Hollywood blockbuster. When people bother to write about Rodriguez – usually in connection with the Fast and the Furious franchise – they praise her ability to project power and sex appeal through her characters without losing her sense of agency. And yet Rodriguez rarely finds her way into the higher-level conversations regarding female action stars. When it comes to what characteristics the female action star should possess, Rodriguez has been relegated to the type of second-tier status that she has spent her career working against. And it’s time to push back on that a little bit.
Let’s take an academic example. In 2007, college lecturers Silke Andris and Ursula Frederick assembled a collection of essays on fighting women in film. The book, titled Women Willing to Fight: The Fighting Woman in Film, touches on a variety of different topics, including transnational female action stars, women as onscreen soldiers, and the female warrior neomyth. It is a smart collection of writing on an all-too-often overlooked aspect of action films. It provides a critical lens for many of our favorite action and science-fiction films. And it only mentions Michelle Rodriguez once, in a footnote.
This is a shame. Not only because Rodriguez has built a career of action films on par with any of her contemporaries – male or female – but also because her characters often fit within an important distinction that the two authors try to make. In their introduction to the book, Andris and Frederick describe their decision to leave out comic book adaptations altogether.
The exclusion of the supernatural fighter, we believe, illuminates the agency and ambitions of the woman who, more or less, chooses to fight. By contrast, the supernatural fighter is generally depicted as fighting to fulfill her destiny… Whether it is a gift or a curse, the superheroine’s fight is rendered as an act of bestowal.
Granted, removing the supernatural fighter from the conversation might have been easier in 2007, years before we first started discussing the importance of a Black Widow or a Wonder Woman onscreen. Still, Hollywood has made the concept of hero and superhero all but synonymous. Ask anyone to sum up what it means to be a hero – even those generally unfamiliar with comic book adaptations – and you will still end up with some variation of Uncle Ben’s speech on great power and great responsibility. When we talk about the important of a female Captain Marvel or Hulk, we are still discussing a variant on this theme. They do not choose to fight; they answer the call.
If we want to create the best possible female action stars, then answering the call is not enough. In Girlfight, her 2000 debut film about a high school student who trains to be a boxer, Rodriguez’s Diana is not interested in the grand narrative. In one scene, Diana and her male opponent meet up after the fight and trade notes on where they made mistakes. To Diana, what mattered is that that both fighters gave their all and that she was not treated any differently because of her gender. While Girlfight has plenty to say on the subject of female empowerment and gender equality, Diana is not fighting to protect women’s role in boxing. She fights because she believes it is important and because she’s good at it. She fights for herself.
This idea of warrior agency – that a woman can and should choose to fight for herself – is prevalent throughout Rodriguez’s career. It can also help explain why Rodriguez chooses to play so many military or law enforcement characters. S.W.A.T.’s Chris Sanchez, Avatar’s Trudy Chacon, and Battle Los Angeles’s Elena Santos are women who voluntarily enlist in a fighting service – who are not drafted or swept up in some grand conflict between good and evil – and who regularly reevaluate their decisions and allegiances. A typical Rodriguez character will step outside her preexisting power structure whenever she feels that her own personal values and reason for fighting have been compromised. Her physical prowess is matched only by her own decision-making.
It’s important to note that I am not asking for Michelle Rodriguez to be cast in additional blockbusters or comic book adaptations. Not that I would mind; any opportunity to see her throw down on screen is an opening weekend affair for me. But casting any actor who possesses a desirable characteristic – be it physical or emotional – only treats the symptoms, not the cause. Casting Rodriguez as a supernatural fighter in a comic book or science-fiction adaptation would lend her strengths to that role but does not mean the role itself has the same degree of agency. To make action films a truly equal opportunity, we need to stop identify the few exceptions to the rules and start writing characters to that baseline. Don’t cast Michelle Rodrigues, deconstruct her, find out what makes her such a powerful presence on the screen and write those characteristics into your characters.
(And then cast Michelle Rodriguez anyways, because she’s awesome.)
You can turn your nose up at the mix of campy action films on Rodriguez’s resume, and you can state a preference for different actresses in blockbuster leading roles. There is no wrong way to bring more women into starring roles in Hollywood blockbusters. Either way, it is important that we use Michelle Rodriguez as a reference point for these types of leading ladies. Create characters who are capable, but also characters whose decision to fight is by choice, not by destiny. Girlfight should be mandatory viewing for any screenwriter about to tackle a Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel adaptation. Create characters that fight for themselves before they try and save mankind.